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Rex Tillerson, Trump's Pick For Secretary Of State, On Russia, Iran, Climate Change


Tillerson's Russia Ties Face Senate Scrutiny
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WATCH: Tillerson's Russia Ties Face Senate Scrutiny

(Editor's Note: Rex Tillerson's confirmation hearings begin on January 11, 2017.)

By tapping ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson as his nominee for secretary of state, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump is sending a strong signal that he intends to seriously pursue his campaign pledge of seeking a rapprochement with Russia.

As a senior oil executive who has worked on ExxonMobil deals in Russia since the 1990s, Tillerson has had a consistent record of pushing for closer ties with Russia and has felt firsthand the effects of U.S. sanctions imposed in response to Russia's seizure of Crimea and the backing of armed separatists in Ukraine.

While the 64-year-old Tillerson has no diplomatic or government experience, he has made a number of comments about Russia and its leaders and has weighed in on a number of issues he can expect to face if confirmed by the U.S. Senate as Trump's secretary of state:

On Putin

Tillerson has met frequently with President Vladimir Putin since the Russian leader's ascent 16 years ago, and he was one of two oil executives that Putin honored with a state "friendship" award in 2013.

John Hamre, a U.S. deputy defense secretary under former President Bill Clinton, told The Wall Street Journal that Tillerson likely has had "more interactive time" with Putin than any other American except former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

On Russia Sanctions

Tillerson's public statements about Russia have largely been confined to business matters. But after his company's $500 billion deal to develop Arctic reserves with state-owned oil major Rosneft was derailed by U.S. sanctions in response to Moscow's 2014 seizure of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, he criticized sanctions as a geopolitical tool in general.

"We don't find them to be effective unless they are very well implemented comprehensively, and that's a very hard thing to do. So we always encourage the people who are making those decisions to consider the very broad collateral damage of who are they really harming with sanctions and what are their objectives and whether sanctions are really effective or not," he told shareholders in 2014.

Trump, who has voiced support for repairing ties with Moscow and boosting counterterrorism cooperation, has already said that he would examine the possibility of lifting the sanctions against Russia.

Such a move, which has drawn bipartisan criticism in Congress, would likely put ExxonMobil's Arctic development plans with Rosneft back on the table, raising the prospect of a conflict of interest. The Washington Post reported in April that Tillerson had around $218 million tied up in ExxonMobil stock.

Rosneft chief Igor Sechin (right) with Tillerson in Russia's Krasnodar region in June 2012
Rosneft chief Igor Sechin (right) with Tillerson in Russia's Krasnodar region in June 2012

Bonds With Rosneft

Tillerson has also established a bond with Rosneft chief executive Igor Sechin, Putin's powerful longtime political ally who was personally hit with U.S. and EU sanctions in response to the Ukraine conflict.

Sechin told Rosnseft shareholders in 2014 that despite the sanctions, "I'd like to ride motorcycles with Tillerson on the roads of the U.S."

Criticisms Of Russia

While Tillerson has largely refrained from criticizing Putin and the Kremlin publicly, he did tell the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in 2008 that Russia "must improve the functioning of its judicial system, and its judiciary."

"There is no respect for the rule of law in Russia today," he said at the forum.

That criticism, however, was broadly in line with then-President Dmitry Medvedev's castigation of "legal nihilism" in the country and pledges to reform what he portrayed as a faulty judiciary.

Despite his many interactions with Putin and top Russian officials, Tillerson has publicly expressed bafflement about the opacity of Russia's leadership.

"I don't know whether anyone ever will be able to sort out entirely why the Russian government does what it does," he said in 2007.


During his campaign, Trump denounced a deal between Iran and major world powers aimed at curbing Tehran's nuclear capabilities in exchange for the lifting of some international sanctions. But he sent mixed messages about how he would handle it should he win the White House, at times pledging to scrap it altogether and at others suggesting he would renegotiate and squeeze greater concessions from Tehran.

Tillerson, who led the world's largest company and negotiated with dozens of governments all over the world on ExxonMobil deals, would likely play a key role should Trump seek new terms from Tehran.

Tillerson, however, appears open to the possibility of U.S. companies doing business in Iran. He said in a television interview in March that ExxonMobil would "certainly take a look" at investing there "because it's a huge resource-owning country."

Climate Change

During his campaign, Trump vowed to end Washington's involvement in the Paris Agreement to battle climate change, a deal that outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama sees as central to his legacy. In 2012, Trump tweeted that global warming is a "hoax" created by China to take jobs from Americans.

Since his election, Trump has said that he has an "open mind" about the deal, though he has already drawn fire from critics for tapping climate-change skeptics for his cabinet.

Tillerson was quoted as saying in October that ExxonMobil "share[s] the view that the risks of climate change are real and warrant serious action," and the company issued a statement in November supporting the Paris climate accord.

Tillerson has also expressed optimism that the dangers of climate change are manageable thanks to human ingenuity.

"As a species, that's why we're all still here: We have spent our entire existence adapting. So we will adapt to this," he told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in 2012. "It's an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions."

After Tillerson became CEO, ExxonMobil also backed a carbon tax in 2006. Tillerson, however, has come under fire from environmental activists who say ExxonMobil had long known that fossil fuels are contributing to climate change, and the attorneys general in New York and Massachusetts are currently investigating whether the company concealed this from investors and the public.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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